Best Practices

How to Explain Product Management to a Five-Year-Old

“What do you do?”

Plenty of product managers have been on the receiving end of this question, and we don’t doubt that answering it is harder than it seems at first glance. After all, PMs do a lot. Their responsibilities span from prioritizing the roadmap to working with engineering and design to discussing feature requests with customers and beyond. Compressing what PMs do into a sentence or two requires some real thought and creativity.

To distill something complicated into something simple, a good place to start is to consider how you might explain it to a kid. So, we decided to ask some members of our ProductCraft community to describe what they do to a five-year-old. Their answers were equally funny, cute, and really insightful. Check them out below.

Prioritization and problem-solving

Unsurprisingly, two main themes in many of the responses were prioritization and solving problems. Basically, PMs help decide what the company should make next and which challenges are most time-critical to address.

“I figure out what our company should work on next. Then, I make sure everyone has the tools they need to get it done.”

Emily Hardin, product manager at Therapy Brands/Fusion Web Clinic

“I find a bunch of problems, make a list of the most important problems, then get those problems solved.”

Josh Trauberman, director of product at inMotionNow

A lot like Legos

Legos showed up in quite a few explanations of what PMs do. That makes sense to us — product managers are builders, taking various components and working to put them together into something useful. However, products don’t come with instructions, so PMs need to use some creativity and trial-and-error to get all of the pieces into the right place.

“It’s like figuring out how to build a new Lego castle with your friends without instructions, only the pieces keep changing in size and moving around.”

Vera Ginzburg, senior product strategist at Modus Create, Inc.

“It’s like when you have all the Legos in front of you and pick the best thing to build and get frustrated when the pieces aren’t put together perfectly, so you have to sometimes stop and start again, but when you’re done, you know what to do next time and it’s beautiful and everyone loves it!”

Christine Itwaru, director of product operations at Pendo

“Product management is like taking all of your Legos, building something, and then sharing with your friend to see if they can figure out how to use what you’ve built.

Kim Blight, product operations lead at Sprout Social

We can relate

Several respondents chose to relate what they do as product people to things five-year-olds have experience with. These include making sandcastles, getting reprimanded by grown-ups, playing soccer, looking for your toys, and (in today’s virtual learning environment), having classes via Zoom.

“We’re the ones that choose which buttons do what in Zoom to help you learn the best you can and help your teacher teach the best she can when you’re not in the classroom.”

Eric Iwashita, product manager at Pendo

“I am Bob, the builder!”

Viraj Phanse, product management at Amazon Web Services (AWS), Analytics/Search Services

“You know when you get yelled at for nothing? It’s like that.”
“When you make a sandcastle, and the ocean comes in, and then you build it again.”
“Someone who makes it easier to find your toys.”

Adam Thomas, founder and product leader

“You are the captain of your three-man soccer team and you play in the middle. Tell your front man to put the ball in the opposite net and tell your teammate behind you to not let the ball go in the net behind him. When your front man or you score a goal, you get a big prize! If you are not able to, try again.”

Aditya Thatte, senior staff product manager at Teradata

“So you know that toy maze you love? It’s my job to help build the maze. I speak to kids like you and find out what sort of maze they like to play with, and all the things we could put in the maze. Does it need spinny things? Windows? A ramp? Steps? It’s my job to decide what sort of maze to build, make it as fun as possible but not so complicated that you can’t have it for Christmas and make it so lots of kids want it and their mummies and daddies can afford to buy it for them.”

Jason Knight, head of product at Black Swan Data

So many questions to ask

A big part of product management is asking questions. These might be directed at executives, other product team members, colleagues in other departments, and customers. One of the most important and common questions PMs ask? “Why?”

“The big boss says, ‘Let’s do this!’ and the product manager says, ‘Let’s do this — here’s why.’ Then the product manager works with a designer and says, ‘Let’s do this — here’s what’ and then the engineers say, ‘Let’s do this — here’s how.’ And finally, the project manager says, ‘It’ll be ready in two weeks.’ And then, the product manager goes home with a product feature.”

Paul Ortchanian, CEO of Bain Public

“I just keep asking “Why?” again and again. Oh, and I write down the answers.”

Clayton Miller, product manager at RailInc. 

How would you explain product management to a five-year-old? Have you chatted with small children about your career, and if so, what did you say? Which explanation(s) resonated the most (or the least) with your young audience? Let us know on Twitter: @Product_Craft.